What we mean when we think about God

As far as I understand it, the idea of God being an old man with a beard who smites people either because of his own capriciousness or at the request of others, is held by two belief extremes; the atheists who think that all Christian see the Bible as being literally true, and the fundamentalists who actually do see the Bible as being literally true (please see note below). Both of these conceptions are damagingly limited. I know that when I was an atheist, I certainly assumed that any belief in God involved a ‘him’ to start with, with human characteristics. Because of course we would have to label something as transcendent and ephemeral as the life force of the Universe in those terms. We humans are not very good at getting our head around things unless we can label them and put them in a box, are we?

I think that how we each define God probably says a lot about how we see our faith, too. My own view of God has changed hugely over the last decade or so. And now I’m probably most comfortable than I’ve ever been with my conception of God; that of, ‘I don’t really know exactly…’.

There’s a quote which I can’t remember exactly (please let me know if you do) which says something along the line of the people of the old days were smart enough to understand that the Old Testament was allegory and myth and story, but today we seem to have gone backwards and we have groups who believe that it is literally true. Sounds like is could be Spong. Or Rohr. But it’s not how the OT was intended to be read.

I think the reality of God, the he/she/it is too tricky for us to get our head around, so we have to tell stories and invent out own parameters to understand it truly. So using a female pronoun is just as valid as a male pronoun, because it’s all a construction anyway. ‘A force that emits love’ probably isn’t catchy enough to get converts. My favourite phrase is Ruach Elohim which is more the spirit, or the breath, of God. I think it’s beautiful.

But there are probably as many conceptions of the universal life force that is ‘God’ as there are minds on the planet.

What do you think of when you think about God?

Note; In the comment section, Ruth asked an important clarifying question that brought to light a problem with how that sentence could be interpreted. My usage of the word THE (the atheists, the fundamentalists) was meant to imply that not ALL people within those groups think that way. If I’d meant ‘all’, I would have said ‘atheists’ without the qualifying ‘the’. But I can completely see how it could be read in the other way, and thank Ruth for bringing it to my attention.

The Debrief.

A debrief? Well,  I’m not exactly going to rehash this weeks palaver. We were all there. It was tedious enough for those involved; it must have been bemusing for those following along at home, to say the least. The post that launched 1000 comments, and who knows how many spin off posts.

You know, I’m sure, that I was accused of deceit and lying and other unpleasant things. And posts were made on the basis of that, even though several of these bloggers had never read my blog before. Drive by commenters, they are called. All the opinions, none of the context.

And then we had other claims; that I’d never been an atheist (oh my god at least once a month for the first two years of blogging I talked about the fact that I was!) that people were only supporting me because of the fact that I have (admittedly fabulous) breasts, that I was trying to evangelise to the Monty Python demographic (don’t even know), that I must have suffered a psychological trauma that pushed me into the arms of faith. That the fact that I was writing from beside my child’s hospital bed was the obvious key to my conversion. That I was purely a made up persona (I can’t even…).

But what threw me the most was the fact that the little group of biting, acerbic, pseudo intellectuals that spoke so dismissively of me and my life in other comment sections…used to be me.

See, when I was a committee member of the Australian Skeptics in my state (those of you who know my sir name are welcome to google that. Because, lies and everything…), we used to meet for monthly dinners and discuss just how ridiculous people of faith (and of course other topics) were. We would roll our eyes and decry anything that we couldn’t prove with the scientific method. Of course we never plumbed the depths of nastiness that the internet supplies (I’m a mod at Reddit; I know how it goes), but we were scathing and dismissive. Because we were right, and they were wrong. Because we had knowledge, and they had superstition.

So being in the scathing and dismissive and ‘right’ group is familiar to me. But this time, I wasn’t in it. In fact, I was the subject.

It made me take a step back, believe me.

And all the fears that I’d had about how people would perceive me if I became a Christian, came true. Right in front of my eyes over a period of two days.

I was being mocked.

I was being laughed at.

People said I had a psychological problem.

People posited that I was suffering from a trauma

People decided I was delusional.

People decided that I was desperately trying to belong.

All the things that I’d been so scared of when I first felt the pull of Christianity. People were actually saying them. About me.

I haven’t used the tag ‘atheism’ in my blog posts for years, because I wanted to keep a low profile (which may be why my detractors have done such a spectacularly bad job at actually finding the 40 or so posts where I’ve mentioned my own atheism). I was nervous about being made fun of, you see. But here it was, in spades.

And of course the stereotypes were all there. The ones I used to promulgate. Christians want to make everyone else a Christian. Christians are prudes. Christians are all evangelical. The stereotypes flew thick and fast. Almost amusingly. Considering I was being lambasted for promulgating the myth of the ‘angry atheist’, this group of 4 or 5 commenters were not doing a great job of proving the assertion wrong.

But you know what? In all of this, I never once thought ‘Fuck I’ve made a mistake’.

It would be easier to join the acerbic eye-rolling group. On the internet and in society. Much easier. As I said, most people I know are non-believers, from the ‘don’t care’ variety, to the ‘sharing atheist memes on FB every day’ ilk. It would be no issue at all to rejoin. I have, at heart, a biting and acerbic sense of humour.  It’s my default.

And this is the first time my decision has really been challenged, in my own mind. Shit, people really don’t like Christians. Right in front of me. Evidence. These commenters were not even zoning on one or two main problems, as the original complainant had done. They were having a go at everything.

But you know what? I realised that I am utterly happy with my decision to become a Christian. It has been an astounding, eye opening and incredible experience. And I’m thrilled that it’s happened.

My fears about what might happen if I became a Christian came true, but I now realise that they never mattered at all. They can think I’m stupid. They can think I’m having a crisis. It’s OK. I don’t love it, of course. I’d rather people didn’t criticise me. But it means so much less to me than I ever thought it would. I’m positively zen about the whole thing.

I’m not trying to convince people here. I’m telling my own story. From my perspective, with my own prejudices and limitations and faults.

And I could be utterly and entirely wrong.

I’ve never claimed to have all of the answers.

I’m a Christian. I’m also a Universalist, a left winger, a gay-marriage advocate, a Monty Python fan, I swear, drink, am a feminist and like Wicca and Buddhism. I have a sharp tongue that I’m not always proud of and I’m pushed every day to be a better person. By my kids, by my self, by God.

It’s my story. I can be what I want. As can you. I have found my place, and I hope that everyone else can do the same.

As I’ve said before,

that’s good enough for me now.

A slightly ranty atonement post.

This post is one of those ones where I’m basically clarifying my stance on certain issues for my own elucidation. For me it’s important that I can clearly articulate my own take on certain key issues. I know that many people are fine with things just being all mysterious but I need to get things relatively clear in my own head from time to time.

It’s no secret that the whole idea of substitutionary atonement makes me very cranky and I find it completely incompatible with every thing I know to be true about a loving God.

When I was an atheist, the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins was a prime example of the delusional thinking of Christians. As an almost- Christian the idea of substitutionary atonement was still a huge issue for me. But gradually I came to realise that substitutionary atonement wasn’t an absolute belief within the faith. There was also the moral influence theory of atonement- the belief that positive moral change is the ultimate goal of Christianity.

In fact, this theory is one of the oldest views of atonement and was the dominant one during the second and third centuriesThis is a pretty important point, hey? If the people who lived closest to the actual time of Jesus had firm beliefs regarding what his life was about, then it certainly bears a closer examination.

Jesus’ life was so fundamentally about social justice, yet his whole death was ultimately about our sins and a blood sacrifice to a vengeful god? (insert scornful swearword here). What a way to devalue everything that he stood for and everything that he tried to achieve. The Gospels are chock full of directives to us about how to live a righteous life, yet when it comes down to it we don’t have to actually do any of those things at all? He died just to absolve us of sins and that’s the message we should take away from his life?

Rubbish.

Although I shouldn’t dismiss the whole sin thing quite so off handedly. Absolutely we need saving, but it’s more about saving us from our acceptance of oppressive systems, from our complacency and from the fact that we seldom do nearly as much as we could to bring about real change, confronting injustice and taking on the responsibility of bringing about God’s Kingdom here and now. If we do sin, then we sin by ignoring the clear teachings of Jesus.

Look, God didn’t need his wrath assuaged to be replaced by mercy after Jesus’ execution on the cross. What kind of a vengeful prick does that make God? You don’t punish your other children by killing one of them to make yourself feel better.

Jesus advocated moral change. He spoke of the world that is to come; the world that we could bring about if people took his message seriously. His teachings and examples push us onward to try and live out his message. People, and then societies, can move towards this, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

For acting in the greater good, dismissing his own safety, and preaching a radical message of societal transformation, Jesus was killed by the Roman Empire (well, it was actually sedition) in an appalling and shameful way. The resurrection shows us that even death cannot separate us from God’s love.  That whatever you face and however you are challenged while striving for justice in the world is insignificant when it all comes down to it. Even if the worst happens to us, God will still be there to love us and lift us up.

One of God’s chief commandments is not to kill. While God didn’t ‘need’ Jesus to die, it served to demonstrate what was supposed to be the last example of religiously condoned violence. The end of the sacrificial system; the end of redemptive violence. Jesus’s death is part of a much wider picture and frame work than the penal substitution theory would have it. Jesus isn’t reduced to to sacrificed lamb. That darn Sermon on the Mount actually meant something after all.

While I’m not going to proof text and play Bible passage tennis to support my argument, there is absolutely a firm biblical foundation for this view. Many New Testament passages allude to a final judgement that concerns moral conduct. The Gospels are essentially chock full of how to be a moral person. Much of what Jesus said concerns this. Yes, Paul did talk about the fact that salvation is by faith and the fact that ‘works of the law’ are not what we would be striving for but if it’s a preach-off between Jesus and Paul, then I know which side I’ll be on. (As a side-note, Hebrews, the book in which much of the blood sacrifice talk can be seen, may not have been written by Paul at all which detracts from it’s importance if it is true).

Next up, universal salvation! It’s just party time here at the moment, isn’t it?

Re-defining Christianity.

My friend Eric recently wrote this article on the redefinition of the word ‘Christian’ and Progressive Christianity. It’s a great article and certainly worth the click over (come on, it’s 2 seconds. Unless you have my internet reception and then there’s a whole peddling monkey effort to be dealt with).

This paragraph, particularly, resonated with me;

If you have been sitting on the side lines trying to avoid the word Christian because of the stigma it carries, or because you can’t wrap your mind around many of the intellectual barriers, I bring you “good news” that the word is changing (in a way I believe Jesus would appreciate). I invite you to come on over and join the movement of “progressive” Christians who are swimming against the current, making space for education and reality within Christianity, and defining our own creeds on our own terms.

It would seem at this stage that I’m not going to be labelling myself as a ‘Progressive’ Christian even thought I think that I probably am one according to the definitions, but I’ll write more about this next week.

Slightly awkward.

I wish that I was vaguely skilled at writing book reviews. There are so many books that have been important to me on this whole ‘spiritual journey’ caper that I would love to be able to honour and do justice to. But sadly my review writing skills atrophied at about age 11 and will never move past ‘a great book for girls of all ages who love ponies and adventure!!’

But of course it’s been a series of fits and starts; reading one book that stated firmly and authoritatively that if you couldn’t accept substitutional atonement then there was no place for you within the faith set me back quite a bit, believe me. But eventually I came to see that what I thought was my own substandard and cobbled together theology of ‘less original sin and more moral influence’ wasn’t just ‘mine’ at all, and if fact actual (gasp) real Christians had thought along these lines for hundreds of years. The voices that are evangelising the loudest within our culture at the moment aren’t necessarily the bearers of the ultimate ‘truth’, apparently.

Who would have thought it?

There are a great many different schools of thought amongst those who are, at the heart of it, ‘followers of Christ’ and some of the elements that I’d thought were deal breakers are, in fact, not. But, just like a marriage, even if you don’t like bits of it, it’s the whole that’s important, isn’t it? If you get too bogged down in the detail of what doesn’t work, then you miss the overwhelming completeness of what does.

Reading ‘Convictions‘ by Marcus Borg in early December brought all the ideas that hadn’t quite connected yet together for me, and helped me realise in a quiet and unspectacular way that first, I actually am a Christian and secondly, I’m not embarrassed about it. I’ll let you decide which of those is a bigger deal…

Anyway, this is a bit awkward. Let’s just pretend it never happened and carry on as normal except for the fact that I’m a christian now, ok?

Comfort Zone Jesus.

I really like Jesus. He was great, wasn’t he? All radical and visionary and sticking-it-to-the-man type action (Have you seen the actor that’s playing Jesus? I particularly like that version).

He’s not particularly comfortable though. Just as CS Lewis described Aslan as ‘… not a tame lion’, Jesus also was not tame. And if you had been around at the same time as he was, not a particularly relaxing person to ‘have a personal relationship’ with, I suspect.

Jesus has become so sanitised. I was going to say ‘lately’ but then I remembered the picture that my Nan has in her kitchen of Jesus, all conditioned beard and pastel robes and halo and lambs and it shows me that this isn’t a new thing.

But actually, he annoyed a lot of people. He pissed off the religious leaders and the powers that be in general and if you thought that life was going along quite nicely thank you, he probably had some pointed questions for you to answer. Most people wouldn’t vote for someone with a vision like Jesus if they stood for election today because he demanded too much, challenged too fiercely and asked the hard questions about just how we want our society to be.

And of course the irony connected to the fact that many christians are also political conservatives would be something that I would find hilarious if it wasn’t so painfully real.

It’s all in Matthew. I don’t need to quote swathes of it; you’re probably familiar with the message even if you haven’t actually read it (It’s good though. You should. I love a biblical action plan rather than crazy Revelations rhetoric). Help the poor. Be merciful (Define that as you wish but I don’t think that war and unlawful imprisonment fall in to most definitions). Social Justice as a major building block for a just society, one that impacts not just the most needy but also the environment and consumerism and discrimination…

Well, just everything, really.

On an unrelated but still related note, a country that needs to spend as much time trying to learn how to declutter as we do has got screwed up priorities. Google ‘decluttering in Australia. 1,430,000 results.

Authentically following Jesus is counter cultural and uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t do it, even though I think its an amazing idea. I’ve spent my entire life making decisions that keep me within my comfort zone. In fact, on reflection, if I look at the major decisions that I’ve made in my life, I can now (a little late) easily identify that they were made essentially because they put few demands on me and kept me within the parameters of what I can do without actually pushing myself or evolving. I’ve also become very good at persuading people to let me carry on in that manner which probably isn’t a great thing but let’s not make this about all about me.

Following Jesus can absolutely start with ‘being nice to the people that you see on a day to day basis’ but I think that it probably needs to progress to more than that. Especially because the people that we meet on a day to day basis are very likely people ‘Just Like Us’ – that don’t require us to do hard things or reconsider our values or exercise patience and love on a really monumental level.

Jesus didn’t just live in his own head. He didn’t just have good ideas about the way that things should be and discuss them with his friends and then go fishing. He wasn’t about making people feel secure, and I suspect that if the idea of Jesus makes you all warm and fuzzy then he may have failed in his mission a little. And if you want to share your faith with people, share that you believe that Jesus is Lord and all that entails, then I hope that you really, really understand exactly what you are saying. Because you’re calling for a radical re-evaluation of how most of us live our lives and that is some serious, comfort zone stretching stuff right there.

Well that’s not very Christian.

I’ve been working on a post that discusses whether or not the bible condemns homosexuality in any huge way (spoilers- I don’t think it does. shush.) and while reading around the topic I found my copy of John Shelby Spong’s ‘Sins of the Scripture‘. I hadn’t read this book for several years; basically since I was so right of agnostic that I was essentially still an atheist.

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I’ve always considered myself firmly in ‘Camp Spong’ but as I read his thoughts about Paul and homosexuality (Spong posits that Paul may have been gay), I felt quite…threatened? No that’s not right because Paul being gay or not isn’t a fight that I have a dog in (I don’t care who you have sex with as long as you do not tell me about it). Obviously I would defer to Spong on essentially everything because this is his life work and I just dabble on a whim, but my first thought was ‘Oh come on, Paul wasn’t gay what is this free thinking chicanery?

Of course when I actually looked into it (a summary of his argument can be found here) I realised that there are some completely valid points made and it’s an interesting argument that does actually make some sense to me although there are equally powerful counterarguments but my point here (because I do have one) is how confronting it is when our beliefs are challenged, even if the beliefs aren’t held very firmly or passionately. when we have a ‘go to’ thought pattern and something jolts that, then our reaction isn’t always very helpful or useful. I could be referring to anything at all; a fundamentalist who begins to question biblical literalism, a skeptic who has a near death veridical experience, an incredibly accurate tarot reading thats leaves you wondering ‘what if…’ to anything along that continuum.

It’s OK if I don’t agree with everything that Spong has to say. He doesn’t believe that the resurrection occurred either and given the fact that I do believe in various things that are classed as ‘supernatural’ the resurrection isn’t actually something that I have a huge problem with.

But this made me take a metaphorical step back and I realised just how confronting this must be for people who define their whole lives and are convinced that there is no other way. Hearing someone say something that you dont agree with can be confronting and can cause you to immediately discredit everything else that they have to say. After having my little WTF Spong moment, I intuitively thought ‘I really don’t think that he is someone whose ideas I can get on board any more’ (I know, I’m awfully judgey but I am a constant work in progress and believe me I fight against it constantly.)

Maybe we should all have our preconceptions challenged from time to time. Even if we ended up exactly where we started, at least we have opened our minds a little. If I had just written him off because his ideas rattled me a bit then I wouldn’t have googled ‘John Shelby Spong interviews and found a passage from this article

I don’t think that what I’m advocating is an easy sort of bourgeois feel-good gospel. I think what I’m advocating is a new humanity that will deliver us from our deeply competitive, tribal, prejudiced attitudes toward other human beings, and indeed toward other religions. So I think the role of the church is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower people to become more fully human. This is why Christ is so important to me.

Of course it just adds to my understanding that being a ‘Christian’ is far more layered and complex that used to understand. It’s not as cut and dried as many would believe and discovering that someone is a Christian doesn’t actually tell you that much about their beliefs. Some will say that ‘to be a PROPER Christian you must believe this’ but seriously, you’re probably going to need to take a good hard look at yourself if that is your mind set.

Basically, no-one has the right to decide whether someone else is Christian or not. Just fucking stop it and love people. THAT is Christian.

Pick a side.

We humans really love to pigeon-hole things.  It seems to be part our nature.  We need to see things in black and white, as an either/ or proposition. Uncertainties, or hazy gray areas make us uncomfortable.

Despite the fact that so many things in life are part of a continuum; from health and sexuality to simple things such as our favourite movies, we still insist on absolutes. Political affinities, food choices, whether someone is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ person, we like to know just where we, and other people, stand. But things are far more complex than a simple tick in a box indicating a preference.

So, I’ve been wondering, do people who claim affiliation with a particular religious tradition needs to believe in everything that it entails?

Or, to make it all about me, if I claim to be a Christian does that mean that I have to stand by all of the claims of Christianity? My intuitive feeling is yes.

But I find this bit tricky.

If I don’t take on the whole package, am I absolutely not a Christian? Maybe a semi- Christian. Spiritual but not religious? I know that if someone tells me that they are a Christian then I assume that it means that they believe that Jesus was the son of God, sent to die for our sins, etc.

Catholicism has always appealed to me ( and I’m looking forwards to staying here http://www.jamberooabbey.org.au   in August) but adding another layer of rules and stipulations to the fairly basic traditions of Christianity that I already seem to have a problem with clearly isn’t going to work. I can’t even stick to a basic ‘to do’ list without feeling tied down and controlled by ‘the man’  so adding the idea of purgatory, etc seems, how do I say it? Totally arbitrary and random.

At its most simple, surely a Christian is a ‘follow of Christ’; someone who believes that the words that Jesus is supposed to have spoken were revolutionary for their time and still have a resonance that speaks into our modern times.

I get that. That makes sense to me. If we took the red-letters and let them meld into our hearts then we would be transformed and so would our world.

The dying for our sins bit?

Hmmm.

Even though I’m no longer a Materialist, and stories of reincarnation (not PC in Christianity, apparently) and NDEs have caused me to think that there probably is an afterlife, these testimonies indicate a general all loving God who doesn’t discriminate according to the Holy Book that you follow, if indeed you follow any at all, or which geographic region you happen to be born in.

Those that have had Near Death Experiences overwhelmingly report profound changes in their beliefs and what they see as important- not towards legalism and lists but towards overwhelming acceptance and love and a general sense of one-ness (I’ll add a list of books that I’ve found particularly informative here to my reading aspirations page soon) which I think point less towards a complete set of truths within one religion, and more towards a basic, matter of fact thing called God, which we, being general pigeon-holey categorizing types of people, have divided up into factions and separated into us and them.

As we do.

Which seems to be essentially the opposite of what the all loving God intended, but we will be difficult, won’t we?

 

 

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